With the announcement that Gov. Tom Wolf would seek a statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schools, it was easy to imagine the outrage immediately beginning to percolate among parents frustrated by the idea of sending their children back to another year of mask-impeded learning and socializing.
Two such parents vented their frustration to Crawford Central School Board this week, imploring board members not to require students to wear masks this year like they had to last year. The fact that the board was moments away from approving a health and safety plan that would strongly recommend but not require masks did little to quell their fears. Just hours before, Erie County had issued a mandate for all schools despite previous plans by many districts to make masking optional.
“They’ll change it tomorrow,” Crawford Central parent Amy Oviatt said of Crawford Central’s plan. “It won’t last long.”
Oviatt’s skepticism likely seems prescient given Wolf’s push for a statewide mandate, but it remains to be seen whether the governor gets the mask requirement he wants. A referendum approved by voters in the spring severely curtailed his emergency powers and a mask mandate for schools would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Immediately after news broke of Wolf’s push for the mandate, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff told the AP that House GOP members opposed even bringing the issue to a vote.
In Meadville, the controversy over masking in schools plays out as Crawford Central schools complete final preparations for the first day of school on Wednesday.
But nearby, another school has already welcomed students back to campus with no universal mask mandate and close to zero COVID cases despite universal testing. Crawford County parents opposed to mandatory masking might learn a thing or two by taking a look at how the return to campus has unfolded at Allegheny College.
In the seven-day period ending Aug. 24, the college conducted nearly 1,700 COVID-19 tests. Two of them came back positive for COVID-19, according to the college’s COVID dashboard.
The secret to the college’s success so far isn’t luck and it isn’t much of a secret. It’s a vaccine requirement.
Students were required to be vaccinated to return to campus this fall. They could also apply for religious or medical exceptions. In the end, 99.9 percent of students got their shots, according to the college’s health agency.
Employees were strongly encouraged to get vaccinated but were not required. Still, 88 percent got their shots.
Near-universal vaccination, it turns out, alleviates the need for a mask mandate. Don’t like masks? Get vaccinated.
Obviously, that won’t work for children under 12 — yet. The Food and Drug Administration has stated that younger children could be approved for COVID-19 vaccination by fall or winter. Before then, perhaps a recommendation for masking rather than a mandate would be sufficient if everyone else in schools were vaccinated.
Just as obvious, a vaccine mandate won’t work for political and psychological reasons — it would likely make vaccine-hesitant people even more unlikely to get a shot.
Nor is this to say that Allegheny won’t revise its mask policy at some point this semester.
After all, a number of Allegheny students mentor youngsters in Crawford County, where less than 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and students are not required to wear masks in school.
But it is to say that people worried about masks might find their time better spent if they focused on vaccinations instead.